Feature stories | Energy, utilities | Technology & innovation

Siberian scientists face up to local frosts, loss of energy, and lack of electrical outlets

18 Jun '15
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

Researchers from Irkutsk by Lake Baikal pursue a reduction of the loss of energy in residential and commercial real estate—a very fitting goal for winter-dominated Siberia—as they develop their “unique” thermoelectric technology. The new Siberian thermoelectric modules will be cost-effective, noiseless, and have higher heat saving efficiency than the known international competition, the Irkutsk innovators claim. The team believes applications for the innovation are wide and in addition to housing and public utilities include various conditioning and refrigerating systems. The project may add yet another dimension to the seemingly well-trodden field of heat-to-electricity conversion first discovered as far back as the 19th century.

The thermoelectric-based energy saving effort has been led for a few years by Igor Shelekhov, a research fellow at Irkutsk State Technical University (ISTU) and the CEO of Termostat, an ISTU technology spin-off.

Applying in-house know-how that builds upon the heat transfer distribution theory, Mr. Shelekhov and his colleagues have synthesized what they say is a brand new semiconductor-based thermoelectric material with “the world’s highest” heat-to-electricity conversion factor.

The technology reportedly has the experiment-proven potential to be used in various public utilities and real estate development projects as well as in thermoelectric-based air conditioning and refrigerating solutions. Energy-saving systems to be built around the new methodology are expected to have high energy conversion efficiency and operate noiselessly.

As these obvious competitive advantages materialize with further research, the developers are shooting for a perceptible market share.

More than 180 years have passed since Germany’s Thomas Johann Seebeck and France’s Jean Charles Athanase Peltier first discovered and described the thermoelectric effect. Yet there seems to be no thermoelectric material in the global market with good enough properties to suit large-scale commercial purposes.

Driven by a lack of adequate solutions

Established in 1930 as a mining and smelting R&D center, Irkutsk State Technical University is now a major higher educational institution in East Siberia with the focus on innovation in energy, mineral prospecting, biomed, IT, civil engineering and construction, public utilities, transport, and mechanical engineering.

Thermoelectric-focused experiments began four years ago when Mr. Shelekhov realized that engineering solutions available in the market for cutting down energy loss in Russian buildings’ ventilation, water supply and drainage systems were “a far cry from what the market expected.”

In an effort to approach the problem innovatively, his team went past the beaten path of making yet another thermoelectric-based temperature gauge, already known in the market for years, and has designed a new type of module with a record distance between thermocouples for a wide variety of uses.

From recapturing heat in buildings to charging car batteries

The Irkutsk thermoelectric converter is a double-sided semiconductor plate. A user can generate electrical energy by simply placing one side against a source of heat and the other against a source of cold.

With the invention, thermoelectric units will help recuperate thermal power lost to the inefficiency of ventilation systems, and even the residual temperature of the water we use to take a shower can be converted into electricity, Mr. Shelekhov claims.

The device can also be used on road sections where hot asphalt is laid. In an experiment, the team put the prototype module on the hot material, which typically cools long, and is said to have generated “enough electrical power to illuminate the road.”

The solution may be valuable for our home uses, too, the Irkutsk innovators believe. “Heat up one side of the thermoelectric unit on a gas cooker and put a mug with cold water on the other side—and you will get enough power to charge your mobile phone or even a car battery,” the team leader said.
Oleg Kouzbit, managing editor: “I’m glad you join us here and take The Bridge walk for Marchmont’s weekly review of the Russian regions’ innovative present and future. Stay close and you’ll find out more of how Russia is bridging the existing gap between its researchers and businesses.”
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